Think of the last time you were really scared. I mean really, bone-shakingly, pants-wettingly, teeth-chatteringly, heart-palpatingly- yeah you get the idea- scared. Why? What was it that did that to you? How did it happen? What were you feeling besides being scared? Had the horrifying thing already happened or about to happen? The last time I was that scared, I was gripping onto a climbing wall 20 feet in the air with no harness. I was just starting to get into climbing and I hadn’t yet learned how to work with my fear and use it to propel me up the wall. Did I mention I wasn’t in great shape at the time and my very speedy descent was immanent? I forgot to mention that, didn’t I? Because it’s important. But anyways, I was panicking. My heartbeat was so loud I couldn’t hear anything around me. My palms were slick with sweat and climbing chalk and I was losing my grasp very quickly. There was nothing I could do. I was trapped between letting gravity latch onto my ankles and drag me to the ground or straining with all my might against the inevitable, hoping I would figure out how to extricate myself from the situation. My muscles were burning and loosening like frayed string. The thought of impact, whether I should duck and roll, if I’d sprain something and have to visit the hospital (ironically enough, it was a duck that nearly broke my ankle and incited a hospital trip) vortexed around my head, but most of all, I pictured falling, loss of control and the ground waiting for me. Finally, I couldn’t hold on anymore. I felt my fingers uncurl from the handhold and my body start going horizontal from the wall. Too late now. And then a curious thing happened on the way down. I felt nothing, or rather it was so fast, I didn’t have time to recognize any emotion or have the time to reflect on how I felt. And when writing horror you have the choice of what effect you want. Do you want to torment your readers or do you want to beat them until they feel nothing with a barrage of numbing images. Both are valid approaches that make for different types of reading experiences. What I’d like to do is to examine the different approaches and show how they’re different and a bit of the theory behind them both.
Back on falling, I’d imagine that would be an unexpected outcome. Shouldn’t I go down screaming? But it makes sense. I have or had an irrational fear of heights. Specifically, I frequently encounter what the French call “l’ appel du vide” which roughly translates to “the call (appeal) of the void.” Essentially, when you encounter a great drop, you want to jump into it or you have the fear you may launch yourself into it. Of course, it is this feeling that you might just give in that creates such a horrible tension because that is the last thing you really want to do. I don’t know if all acrophobics get this feeling but I know that, beyond just the overwhelming fear of high places, there is the threat of l’ appel du vide. So what does this have to do with horror?
Ann Radcliffe, an 18th century writer of Gothic horror titles such as The Mysteries of Udolpho or The Italian, made a distinction between horror and terror in her treatise On the Supernatural in Poetry. In this text she says “Terror and horror are so far opposite, that the first expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes, and nearly annihilates them.” At this time, Gothic horror, characterized by expansive and exotic locales, mysterious and oblique forces, and psychological turmoil, was embedded in the quest or the interest in the sublime. The sublime or the feeling of the sublime goes beyond the feeling or appreciation of beauty. It is probably more akin to awe or the awareness of being in the presence of something formidable and monumental. This relates to terror in that, as Ms. Radcliffe states, “[terror] expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life.” In more modern terms, terror is a feeling that there is something present that goes beyond the human. That doesn’t have to mean something supernatural. All it means is that one becomes acutely aware of how small is in comparison to something else. Think of standing at the foot of Mount Everest or looking into the Marianas Trench. Or it could be looking at the complex patterns on a butterfly’s wings. But in the context of horror, the feeling is definitely a lot less innocuous than what I’ve just described.
When dealing with terror, one should feel that one is at the mercy of forces beyond one’s control. This can be due to something as banal as a serial killer or as alien as pan-dimensional beings. But when feeling terror, there is a tearing away of the world one was originally comfortable with and a dawning knowledge, however incomplete, of something beyond normality. In a way, it can be called back to anticipation and expectation. With the knowledge that the real world is simply a thin skein that covers a vast gulf of unimaginable experience, one anticipates and thinks what the consequences of such a discovery will be. In the context of horror literature, one anticipates and expects that whatever comes through the yawning maw of the cross-dimensional portal will be terrible, especially if there are hints of what it can be. One anticipates that the stalker will eventually cross a line and threaten our protagonist. These things peel back the layer of normality and place us into a shadow world where we don’t know where or when the assault will begin. But we know it’s coming and the tension is building and we’re getting more and more upset because we know, we just know, that when it hits, it will be terrible! That is terror, the waiting thundercloud over head. You know that when it breaks, lightning will cleave the sky and thunder will shake you, but all you can do is watch and wait and become more frightened. And when it does break, the tension is gone, and the blind rush to get inside or avoid the windows or save the dog from being barbecued by lighting begins.
When the shit hits the fan, you don’t have time to think. It becomes a matter of survival. There is no longer the appreciation or the slowly lurking feeling that something is wrong and that more wrong is waiting to stampede over the horizon and onto your head. The monster is already here and it wants to consume your sanity and your liver. The serial killer has the knife to your throat or your child’s throat. It’s officially a bad day to be you! In these moments, as when my muscles failed and I let go, the higher faculties take a break. They have to. If you’re a gazelle and you see a furry fury engine made of claws and teeth coming at you, you no longer have the luxury of thought. You run or you die. That’s the extent of your decision making now. This is true with horror. At the moment the threat goes from implied to manifested, your characters have to react to it and react immediately. The pace picks up and lower, reptilian instincts go online. This is part of what horror does. The second thing about horror is that by incarnating the threat directly, you crystallize it, put it in the spotlight. Before, when it was hinted at, your brain was in a flurry of panic, trying to predict how bad it could be and making the worst out of it. This is an evolutionary adaptation probably. The person who anticipated ten lions and planned accordingly while the person who anticipated only one lion got to see another day. But now, we see that it was in fact one lion or at most four lions and that is because we expect the worst, the absolute worst since that has kept us alive through those times when it was at the apex of bad. But this is why the horror and terror effects are so different and why when faced with the threat, the experience changes.
So how do we use the two different routes? When do we use them? To the second question: any time you want. There is no right or wrong answer. It depends on what you would like to read yourself. I prefer the slow building tension of a film like Black Swan or Marebito. I like the feeling of unease, that at any second, something horrible will happen. But I love Halloween by John Carpenter or Videodrome by David Cronenberg where the nasty is on display, loud and clear (and very gooey). The Ruins is a fantastic suspenseful book that left me nauseated and drained. And Stephen King’s stories are often nerve shredding. Though, in truth, these great stories and directors used both techniques to achieve maximum effect. When the tension becomes too much, they give you a jolt then bury the antagonist till they’ve sufficiently wound you up again. Then there are authors like Edward Lee, reigning king of splatter punk fiction in my opinion, where he numbs you by repeatedly bashing you with gore, slaughter, rape and every other nasty thing he can think of. A film analogue would be George A. Romero who, though he does use terror, really delights in slapping you with all the nasty bits of blood and gore. But all of the above are fun and entertaining. It really depends on what you feel like experiencing and when done well, both can entertain you and your readers.
In conclusion, leaving the light on won’t help because all it does is create shadows where the nightmares can hide and wait till the lights go back out. And in the light, the monsters end up staring you in the face.
On a side note, the ground was covered in padding so I had a nice cushy landing. You have to learn to fall or else you won’t learn how to reach the top.